• Mark J. Keenan

The Mystery of Penguins



Recollections and musings of a slow ultramarathoner.


Two days before the run.

Kopiko is an Indonesian confection. A nine gram glassy-looking lollie made of coffee which can either be crunched (quite satisfyingly) or left to soften in the mouth to become toffee-like and stick to the roof or your mouth (not so satisfyingly). They are only sold in Red Dot (The Price Choppers) and The Reject Shop, so they doesn't seem quite legitimate as part of my nutrition plan for the weekend. Still, as I have before, I am placing one lollie for each hour I expect to be running into ziplock bags marked with a checkpoint number. They are individually wrapped which bothers me. Firstly, because of the shame at purchase point, when I place the foil bag, full of tiny foil wrapped sweets, on the counter. Secondly, when I try to open them with sweaty hands mid-event and can't get the little bastards out. In the zip-lock waiting for them is a handful of jellybeans (proper ones from the chemist), salt tablets, and more environmentally unfriendly packages containing a calorified sticky gel with a consistency somewhere between snot and toothpaste. I'm not looking forward to the eating part of this endurance trail run.


One day before the run.

Glenn and I head off early to Margaret River. We are the organised ones, not like those other friends of ours, John, Nat, and Bryce. They are doing the team relay, and last night were in the group chat asking if anyone had a spare crepe bandage to complete their mandatory first aid kit for the run. Glenn sent a GIF of a crepe. I thought it was funny. The others didn't reply to Glenn. They also send messages to check they've got the other gear - space blanket, sling, and so on. Glenn and I have a lot of fun on the drive the next day. I send messages to Glenn about whether he has remembered his snake blanket, hoping the boys read it and think we mean snake bandage. I then use Glenn's phone to reply, saying no. The ruse works. Not only do they think we must have decided to travel separately, they re-check the mandatory equipment list. We stop at Busso and go for a walk out to the end of the jetty. We are going to enjoy our day before the run. We see a dolphin, then another. There's a small pod of them. Glenn is stoked. So am I. I explain to him about the dolphins and mice in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and we begin pondering important questions. Things like, why do boy lions have manes, but not girls. And penguins...what are they all about. Billy arrives a bit after us, he's staying in our cottage, but also doesn't have an answer about penguins. The other lads roll up in time for the race briefing and to see the three of us solo runners packing drop bags with way too much stuff.


The day of the run.

It's dark when we start and, despite the race director's assertions it would be fine to not bring one, I wish I'd packed my headlamp. Glenn and Billy have disappeared from sight before we leave the beach. This is as expected, I will be taking a much slower pace on account of my injury-affected training and my biomechanical inability to run fast. Still, I manage to make it to the first checkpoint, and the second, within my previous times, and well ahead of what I thought possible. Then I see Glenn. He's not doing well. Gut issues. It makes me sad. He's trained so damn hard and he looks demoralised. At least the boys running the team relay will be able to look after him and console, or cajole, him. Thirty five or so kilometres in, I can feel I am getting a blister on my toe. I nearly leave it until the next checkpoint to put a patch on it before realising this is a rather stupid idea. John passes me some time after this. He's the third relay runner with the lads. The beach. The sand. It goes on and on, but part way I have a thought about the penguins and send a voice message to Glenn. He can't open it though. I have a rest at checkpoint three and eat some potatoes. I'm slightly behind my previous time but this is occupying my mind and I am not enjoying the run as I'd like to. I stay at the station for twenty minutes until it is impossible for me to make the same time as before - relieved, I can now get on with just getting there. I catch up with Nic about halfway to the final aid station. Maybe at sixty k mark or so. She's not doing so well. Feeling dizzy. We walk, run, talk the rest of the way to Gracetown as the sun disappears over the horizon. Then we start the climb over the rocks and the last twelve kilometres to the finish. I though the beach went on and on. It was nothing compared to the uphill sand trail we end up on. The still night air is punctuated occassionally by bullfrog choirs and one random, and quite eerie sounding, cow. When we make the end, Nat comes into the finish chute and he gives me a hug. It's a good one. John and Bryce are there too. And Glenn too, who insists on taking care of everything for me and supplying me with chocmilk and snacks. Billy, the last of our crew of six is crashed at home. He came second in our age group, some six hours earlier than me. When we get back to the cottage he has a cup of tea and donut and tells me he thinks I am one incredibly tough person. Nearly sixteen hours on a trail and I still haven't quite nutted out the penguin mystery but I know I love these five blokes.